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Anatomy of a Super Bowl Ad

It’s Jan. 29, the day after Super Bowl XXXV, and time for many of us to review the game tapes. Sure, football experts were trying to figure out how so many errors could result in such a lopsided 34-7 romp of the Baltimore Ravens over the hapless New York Giants. But for this video editor, the focus of the replay was to exult in the cutting-edge postproduction work that went into all the ads that drove most of the guests enjoying Super Bowl parties to the snack table.

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As a reflection of sluggish Internet productivity, most of the spots from last year were gone, with only E-Trade, HotJobs and coming back. Some of the other ads, which included a man getting ecstatic over sniffing a business card and a VW falling from a tree, were mystifyingly obtuse for such a nationwide audience

Among the more conventional pitches, the ad from Bud Light in which the dreamy-eyed Cedric splooshes his girlfriend with beer won most post-game popularity contests, followed closely by Bob Dole’s clever Viagra spoof for Pepsi.

(click thumbnail)view all imagesEYE-CATCHER

But the spot that caught my eye for sheer production value was the 60-second "Running With the Squirrels," from global services company EDS. It came up right after Kyle Richardson’s punt pinned the Giants on the 1-yard line with 9:55 left in the first quarter. Not only did it have the lush look of a theatrical feature, but after discussing the way it was put together with Visual Effects Supervisor Melissa Davies, I began to realize that this kind of effects-centric production leads those of us with a more conventional film/video background to redefine the whole concept of online finishing.

Davies, along with her partner Alan Barnett, is one of the founders of Sight Effects in Venice, Calif., where they specialize in hands-on compositing and sophisticated effects supervision. She was also involved with the Emmy-nominated "Cat Herder" spot that was a highlight of last year’s Super Bowl in which EDS showed us how it could wrangle disparate Internet technologies together to make them run in the same direction.

Reassembling that successful team, Producer Marty Wetherall of Minneapolis’s Fallon agency arranged for John O’Hagan from the New York office of Hungry Man Productions to direct the spot along with the Spanish production company Group Films, and had Art Director Dean Hanson and Copy Writer Greg Hahn make the unique premise behind the "Squirrel" a conceptual reality. It was produced domestically by John Davidson, and in Spain by Anna Bonet and Esther Rigau.

"Running With the Squirrels" opens with an overhead shot of the town of Pedraza, Spain, where the crew had gone to film on-location. After a flamenco guitar strum and a solo trumpet call, we see men in white shirts wearing red bandanas stretching as if preparing for a race. A townsman declares, "When you are running with these animals, the last thing you can do is show fear."

The dramatic music composed by Ashe & Spencer swells over a crowd cheer and a large gate with men poised in front of it swings open to unleash a herd of squirrels charging toward the camera. Most of the rest of the spot is filled with the men running through the town scrambling in front of and among the rampaging rodents in a parody of the annual "Running of the Bulls" at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain, which was made famous (if not very logical) by Ernest Hemingway’s novel "The Sun Also Rises." The populace cheers the men on, squirrels cavort through the crowded streets, and an old men reflects, "I have lost many friends to the squirrels."


Finally, as an aerial shot pulls back from the town square packed with cheering celebrants, the message from EDS is printed on the screen: "It’s not the big, lumbering competitors your need to worry about" – font dissolve – "We’ll help you compete with the quick, nimble ones," and the EDS logo fills the screen.

"Prior to going to Pedraza for the live-action filming," Visual Effects Supervisor Davies explains, "we studied the behavioral running pattern of squirrels with their trainers. But in reality, only eight real squirrels were involved in the spot. All the rest were digitally created in Alias|Wavefront’s Maya software and composited with the live-action shots of the townspeople in our Discreet flame and inferno effects systems at Sight Effects."

The whole "Squirrels" spot is basically an elaborate composite with the few live-action squirrels shot individually in front of blue-screens. "You can’t run more than one squirrel at a time," Davies laughs, "because they’ll just fight each other. In reality, squirrels are very unfriendly. So most of the critters you see on the screen were created as computer-generated images."

All the live-action shots were filmed with handheld cameras, and Davies found they had to be tracked by hand because no automated tracking software could follow their movements.


The CG animals, however, were created by animators who, though many, deserve the credit due. Animators on "Running With the Squirrels" included Michael Capton, Kim Dail, Dariush Derakhshani, Stephen McClure, Ernie Rinard, Michael Teperson and Chris Wells. These artists built the virtual beasties using nurbs (nonuniform rational B spline) models to get a more natural shape than possible with the previous polygon models and then textured the fur with Maya.

So in reality, the only real squirrels seen in the EDS spot are those seen in close-up, running along fences, or when they stick their cute little noses in the camera lens. "Even the one that jumps on a bench is CGI before it gets up to the higher level," explains Davies. "But there is a live-action close-up of one squirrel seen running in slo mo toward the end."

The images were colorized by the famed Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company Three and the ad was offlined by Gordon Carey at Filmcore, both located in Santa Monica, Calif. The online was completed at Davies’ Sight Effects, but not using the process most longer-form editors have become accustomed to.

"Basically, Gordon Carey cut together all the live-action runners in his offline cut, leaving just plates in the shots that contained only squirrels," Davies says. "We took it from there at Sight Effects and put in all the effects on our Discreet flame system. It’s really not a conventional online process since the visual effects artists create the images on their individual systems and once they have completed a given scene we drop it into our cut. So we are building the spot as the compositing is completed."

Interestingly, the whole spot was shot in PAL – both to take advantage of that format’s higher resolution and for distribution overseas. It was converted to NTSC at Sight Effects for delivery to CBS. Let’s hope EDS won’t make us wait until the next football season to see it again. After all, the Emmy nominations come up long before then.